India mourns death of priest who was Christian-Hindu peacemaker

By staff writers
September 24, 2008

The churches in India are mourning the death of a Catholic priest who had dedicated his life to developing positive relations between Christians and Muslims at a time when extremists are seeking to foster violence among the communities for narrow political ends.

The priest, Fr Samuel Francis, and a volunteer who tragically died with him lived in the village of Chota Rampur, in the Diocese of Meerut in the state of Uttarakhand, northern India.

Fr Francis was also known as "Swami Astheya," because he led the life of a hermit in an "ashram," or typical Hindu monastery, adapted to the Christian tradition.

The priest, who was 60 years of age, was found dead on 22 September 2008, along with the volunteer, named by the media as Mercy, who was also working in the area.

According to official inquiries, the homicide occurred two days beforehand.

According to a statement from the Indian Catholic Bishops' Conference, the incident does not seem to be part of an anti-Christian hate campaign launched by radical Hindu groups, but rather the result of a robbery attempt in the place where the priest was living, which has in fact been robbed.

The Christian ashram was a place where lay people, priests, religious, church groups and young people, especially, went for days of retreat and meditation. It was a centre of prayer and a location where the poor and marginalised could find solidarity and assistance.

The ashram also became a reference point for the organization of encounters and interreligious events, especially between Christians and Hindus.

The local Church sources say that "it was a special experience, especially in the midst of this time of violence being carried out by radical Hindu groups who have been contaminated by the discriminating ideology of "hindutva." The Catholic ashram and Fr Samuel's work showed that dialogue and mutual respect are the basis for interreligious relations and this offered a model for all religious communities of how to build harmony and peace in the nation."

The funeral of the priest has now taken place in Chota Rampur, with the presence and participation of both Christians and leaders from other religious communities.

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